Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bad defense could lead Steelers to the cellar

Worst in the division. Last place. A bad football team.
No, this column is not about the Browns. If the Steelers don’t get their act together soon, especially on defense, that first sentence might well describe them.
Yes, that probably sounds like alarmist analysis of a 1-1 football team, but there are noticeable cracks in the foundation of this season. Most of them have to do with a defense that’s been much more a problem for the Steelers than for their opponents for a few years now.
It would be one thing if the Steelers’ defensive schemes had been definitively exposed as stale, old and easily dissected. Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzing might not be the phenomenon that it once was, but it isn’t stale.
No, what’s more troubling about this defensive unit is the fact that they seem to be losing almost all of the basic physical battles that make up every play. A defense took pride for so long on its ability to stop the run finds itself being gashed on a regular basis.
Ryan Shazier was expected to make a positive impact right away, and to this point has not. He has been okay, no better. That’s to be expected, given Shazier’s rookie status. Mike Mitchell was supposed to be a younger, better version of Ryan Clark, but thus far has been a missed-tackle machine.
The secondary isn’t really the problem, though. Or at least not the glaring one. That inauspicious distinction falls to the front three. The Steelers are getting no push from their front three. There have been no dynamic, disruptive plays from Cam Heyward, who seemed poised to make a big leap this year. Stephon Tuitt has only played 24 snaps so far this year, and hasn’t distinguished himself in any significant way, and the fact that Brett Keisel is getting significant time is a bad sign.
Steve McLendon has been unable to occupy blockers at the nose tackle spot, and Cam Thomas hasn’t been good when he’s taken snaps at the nose.
Casey Hampton still hasn’t been replaced, and the void he left in the middle of this front seven is somehow larger than his actual frame.
Ripping the front three is justified, but there is still plenty of blame to spread around. Jarvis Jones still looks like a guy that will get swallowed up by even an average left tackle, and Jason Worilds just looks bad. The outside linebacker spots have always been the sexy positions on the Steelers’ defense, and having subpar pass rushers at those posts severely impacts the rest of the unit.
In summary, things don’t look good. At all.
The offense has been stagnant over the last six quarters, but I have no reason to believe that Ben Roethlisberger and his bevy of skill position players will continue to scuffle. Whether or not Marcus Gilbert can protect him long enough to get them the ball is another story. Gilbert’s recent contract extension, coupled with his poor play, is raising concerns, and rightfully so. Mike Tomlin didn’t seem worried when questioned about Gilbert, which calls into question whether he was actually watching his right tackle for the first two weeks.
A defense in transition, trying to find a way to get stops. An offense with all the pieces, provided they can protect the guy that makes it all tick. A narrow win over the division’s perennial laughingstock followed closely by a blowout loss on the road.
Sure, the Steelers may well get it together and finish 10-6. Roethlisberger might turn in a season-long virtuoso performance and carry this team to heights greater than they otherwise appear capable of. There is absolutely a chance that that could happen.
Or, they could finish 8-8 for the third straight season, and find themselves in the middle of the pack, just another team.
There is a third option. The Steelers could go the whole year and not figure it out. They could end up in last place. At this early juncture, that seems like a stunningly realistic outcome.

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